New coordinator of homelessness response for city says 20 beds per night have remained at 85% capacity so far this year
On a unanimous vote this week, the Sarasota City Commission approved the renewal of a contract with The Salvation Army in Sarasota to provide up to 30 beds a night for homeless individuals at a maximum cost of $319,200 for the remainder of this fiscal year.
A memo provided to the board in advance of its Nov. 20 regular meeting points out that the contract reserves 20 beds with the option to go up to the 30-bed maximum. The cost of 20 per night for the rest of the fiscal year — which will run through Sept. 30, 2018 — would be $212,800, the memo noted.
The city also can lower its reservation level to 10 beds a day under the terms of the contract.
The resolution the board approved calls for the city to pay $35 per bed per day. The contract goes into effect on Dec. 1.
Kevin Stiff, the new coordinator of homelessness response for the city, reported that, so far this year, 20 beds a night have remained at about 85% capacity. Additionally, approximately 60% of the homeless individuals in the city, who ask for help, or whom Police Department officers take to The Salvation Army instead of to jail for lodging out of doors, have requested extra services through The Salvation Army.
“I think that the number of beds at 20 is appropriate,” Stiff told the commissioners. Most nights, he pointed out, two beds remain open, giving officers on the street the ability to use those beds for jail diversion or as a result of outreach to people living on the streets.
Formerly a captain with the Sarasota Police Department, Stiff served as supervisor of the city’s Homeless Outreach Teams (HOTs). He started his new position on Oct. 1, the first day of the 2018 fiscal year, Kate Flexter, a city spokeswoman, told The Sarasota News Leader.
“The city continues to educate and encourage individuals to move to housing first,” Stiff pointed out to the commissioners on Nov. 20. “Enforcement is our least desired outcome when dealing with homeless individuals.”
Training of police officers to reinforce appropriate responses with the homeless remains a priority, he added.
The Police Department has two case managers working with the HOT teams, he noted. “They are functioning well,” he said of the teams. “Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, they are doing outreach.” On Mondays and Fridays, he added, the case managers work with homeless people in the city.
When Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie asked about statistics for the past fiscal year regarding the number of homeless individuals who were jailed, Stiff replied, “So far this year, we have not arrested anyone for lodging out of doors.”
Nonetheless, he added, “There are some [individuals] in our city that are going to refuse always to participate in the system.” However, he continued, he was encouraged that 60% of those people taken to The Salvation Army had asked for extra help.
When Freeland Eddie then asked about data that The Salvation Army is to start maintaining for the city under the terms of the new contract, Stiff explained that those statistics, along with data from the Continuum of Care for Sarasota and Manatee counties, will enable city staff members to track people its HOT teams take to The Salvation Army. “That information will be critical when determining whether or not we need additional beds or what type of housing … we need as we move forward.”
In compliance with federal guidelines, the Continuum of Care must have a fully coordinated Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) in operation by Jan. 1, 2018, Ed DeMarco, executive director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness — which serves as the Continuum of Care for the two counties — has explained.
Commissioner Hagen Brody asked Stiff whether city staff is keeping track of homeless individuals who refuse services.
“I would not say we’re keeping track,” Stiff responded. However, “The officers on these beats get to know these individuals on a daily basis by interacting with them. … We always want to give them an opportunity to change their minds or change their behavior.”
In the past, Stiff pointed out, it was difficult for some homeless people to get the assistance they needed. “I think that’s changing in Sarasota,” he added, which will lead to more willingness of individuals to accept help.
“I think it would behoove us to start keeping track of them,” Brody responded, adding that he felt the city attorney also should be involved in the process.
He has been working with the City Attorney’s Office, Stiff replied. “We are developing a criminal diversion [modification] for our city ordinances.”
Additionally, he explained, “We do have a report for every time an officer contacts a homeless individual.” The Police Department keeps all those records, he noted. Therefore, if an officer needed to take someone to court, the data would make it clear that assistance had been offered to the person on a number of occasions and, yet, the person had continued to refuse help and to violate city laws.
Vice Mayor Liz Alpert then asked Stiff to talk about the misconception in the community that homeless individuals taken to The Salvation Army must pay for their beds.
Anyone taken to that facility by a HOT member has use of the bed for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Stiff said. However, if a homeless individual comes to Sarasota and decides to sleep at The Salvation Army on his or her own, after 30 days, that person has to pay $12 per night.
With no further discussion, Commissioner Willie Shaw made the motion to renew the contract for the city beds. Brody seconded it.